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What Makes Us Think We Can Help "Govern" Afghanistan?

Why do American officials think they have the special ability to teach Afghans to embark on good governance in their country if we can't do it in Washington?

Explain something to me.

In recent months, unless you were insensate, you couldn’t help running across someone talking, writing, speaking, or pontificating about how busted government is in the United States.  State governments are increasingly broke and getting broker.  The federal government, while running up the red ink, is, as just about everyone declares, “paralyzed” and so incapable of acting intelligently on just about anything. 

Only the other day, no less a personage than Vice President Biden  assured the co-anchor of the CBS  Early Show, “Washington, right now, is broken." Indiana Senator Evan Bayh used the very same word,  broken, when he announced recently that he would not run for reelection and, in response to his decision,  Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz  typically commented, “The system has been largely dysfunctional for nearly two decades, and everybody knows it.” Voters seem to agree.  Two words, “polarization” and  “gridlock” -- or hyperbolic cousins like  “paralyzing hyperpartisanship” -- dominate the news when the media describes that dysfunctionalism.  Foreign observers have been similarly struck, hence a  spate of pieces like the one in the British magazine the  Economist headlined, “America’s Democracy, A Study in Paralysis.”

Washington’s incapacity to govern now evidently seems to ever more Americans at the root of many looming problems.  As the  New York Times summed up one of them in a recent headline: “Party Gridlock in Washington Feeds Fear of a Debt Crisis.” When President Obama leaves the confines of Washington for the campaign trail, he promptly  attacks congressional “gridlock” and the “slash and burn politics” that have left the nation’s capital tied in knots.

And he has an obvious point since, when he had a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, congressional Democrats and the White House still couldn’t get their act together and pass health-care reform, not even after a year of discussion, debate, and favors trading, not even as the train wreck of the Massachusetts election barreled toward them. These days the Democrats may not even be a party, which means their staggering Senate majority has really been a majority of next to nothing. 

The Republicans, who ran us into this ditch in the Bush years, are now perfectly happy to be the party of “no” -- and the polls  seem to show that it’s a fruitful strategy for the 2010 election.  Meanwhile, special interests rule Washington and lobbying is king.  As if to catch the spirit of this new reality, the president recently offered his  vote of support to the sort of Wall Street CEOs who took Americans to the cleaners in the great economic meltdown of 2008 and are once again raking in the millions, while few have faith that change or improvement of any kind is in our future.  Good governance, in other words, no longer seems part of the American tool kit and way of life.     

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, to the tune of billions of taxpayer dollars, the U.S. military is promoting “good governance” with all its might.  In a major campaign in the modest-sized city of Marja (a place next to no one had heard of two weeks ago) in Taliban-controlled Helmand Province, Afghanistan, it’s placing a bet on its ability to “restore the credibility” of President Hamid Karzai’s government.  In the process, it plans to unfurl a functioning city administration where none existed.  According to its commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, as soon as the U.S. Army and the Marines, along with British troops and Afghan forces, have driven the Taliban out of town, he’s prepared to  roll out an Afghan “government in a box,” including police, courts, and local services. 

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